School of Communications, Dublin City University, Ireland
The French philosopher Simone Weil’s contention that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity” comes to mind when considering the work of Pat Collins. As with his previously acclaimed films, including What We Leave in Our Wake (2009), Tim Robinson: Connemara (2011), Silence (2012), and Living in a Coded Land (2014), Song of Granite again evinces Collins’ deep empathy and sensitivity, his commitment to bearing witness and paying attention, while somehow conveying a sense of the “filmmaker as listener”. His unconventional documentary work communicates a humanity, a curiosity about the depth and pain of existence, as well as demonstrating how tuned in he is to the subtleties of the everyday without romanticising the mundane for sentimentality’s sake. For a film shot in black and white, it is fitting that Song of Granite – a documentary-of-sorts about renowned Irish sean nós singer, Joe Heaney, which incorporates extensive dramatisations of Heaney’s life – is a story of contrasts. These dichotomies operate at three levels: in the character of Joe Heaney himself; in the quietness of domesticity versus the excitement of performance; and in the rural Connemara environment set against the urbanity of Glasgow and the cosmopolitanism of New York. Indeed contrasts are apparent from the opening scene, which finds young Joe Heaney (played with stunning competence and conviction by Colm Seoighe) displaying a tenderness and delicacy in crouching down amid the exposed expanse of the rough and rocky hills of Connemara to mark the spot where some eggs are nested. Pulling a thread from his jumper, he slowly and carefully ties it around the windswept grass leaves patting down the long grass to protect the fragile nesting eggs from the blustery elements.
“He wanted to be on the move”: Heaney’s son’s assessment of his father’s spirit mid-way through the film is alluded to early on in young Joe’s intensely contemplative gaze at his surroundings. His sense of quiet guardedness, suspicion and tentativeness evokes parallels to a skittish animal; he is not quite sure about the world beyond himself, his family and his way of life. Nevertheless, he gets gentle encouragement from his schoolteacher and his father, and is both seen and validated; counter to the contemporary popular perception that children were cruelly treated, ignored and unvalued in Ireland. Joe Heaney, a boy growing up in rural Connemara in the 1920s and 1930s, is presented as neither molly coddled nor neglected. Rather, the portrayal of the relationship between Joe and his father is one of understated affection. In one of the most touching scenes, Joe’s father instructs him in how to hold his knife when peeling potatoes. He does not discount his son’s nervousness about handling the knife, but assures him that, in his own time, he’ll get the hang of it. This is borne out too in his talent for singing; something he acquired through absorbing the song, music and dance in his intimate interactions with his father as well as engaging with the musicians and storytellers in his community. In a later scene, Joe is hurling stones up onto the roof of his cottage-home resulting in a series of loud clatters, while ignoring the chastisements of his mother. This is the first indication of some discontent, some restlessness in him. Life happens around Joe, and he skirts in and out of the action; ever on the side-lines observing. In Heaney’s middle years in Scotland, Michael O’Chonfhlaola gives an outstanding performance of a man, a musician whose physically strong body belies a shyness and quietness, and an inner life teeming with thoughts and emotion. O’Chonfhlaola, as Heaney, explains the process of sean nós singing and the fact that “you’re all alone for those couple of verses”. Given that Heaney disappeared from Glasgow around 1954 or 1955 leaving his wife and children, and later reappeared in 1961 only to leave for the US for good several years later, this sense of aloneness, of restlessness, of wanting to escape is echoed in Heaney’s father’s comment to him on a visit home, perhaps in the late 50s: “you always had your eye on the horizon”. It is fitting, then, that Heaney worked as a doorman in New York for several decades; he exists on the threshold of two worlds: the public and private; the external and internal. In a subtle glimpse into his inner life, Collins shows Heaney’s weathered and rough hand caressing the granite pillar outside the building he works at in NYC; a tactile gesture reconnecting him with Connemara, a way of grounding himself to a place. The final phase of Heaney’s life is played by Macdara Ó Fátharta. This is the most vocal version of Joe Heaney that the film offers. In an emotional passage, Heaney laments that he doesn’t want to “die amongst strangers”, in a land that is not his. Heaney’s self-reflection towards the films close has him wondering if he is the warrior-hero of the myths he knew growing up, or if he’s the beast of those stories. Heaney is rooted but unrooted; he has no connection with his children and no sense or interest in lineage in that respect. Instead for him the songs are the link to the past and to place, they’re his offspring, and they hold and express for him the complexity of life.
Such antithetical characteristics as held simultaneously within Heaney’s rootedness and unrootedness is mirrored in the depictions of domestic life as opposed to the lively music scene that Heaney inhabits. Given UNESCO’s recognition of the cultural significance of the Irish uilleann pipes in December 2017, it is timely that Collins’ film contains within it fictionalised but realistic scenes of traditional Irish music sessions that are both energetic and poignant and demonstrate the deep respect for culture – for Irish music, dance and song – that runs through the veins of many Irish people. Collins’ patience and confidence in his filmmaking means that he avoids over-directing. This approach allows for three full dramatised performances to be captured during the scene of the traditional Irish music session in the pub; which may have been a Glasgow pub surrounded by the Irish community, or a pub in Dublin or some other Irish place. It is a testament to how well the sequence works that one is not consciously or intellectually concerned about knowing where it is supposed to be; rather, the sense of being part of the crowd sweeps the viewer along and keeps one present in those few minutes. Damien Dempsey’s rousing and foot-stamping performance of Rocky Road to Dublin is contrasted with Lisa O’Neill’s deeply moving and beautiful rendition of Galway Shawl. But during their songs both singers maintain a presence in the crowd of rapt listeners. When O’Chonfhlaola, as Heaney, closes his eyes to sing he melts away from the crowd. Even though he holds the hand of a man throughout the song (traditional accordionist, Seamus Begley), O’Chonfhlaola exudes the air of someone who is totally alone and unaware of the audience. This is enhanced, arguably, by the fact that the song is in Irish and – unless a native speaker – the viewer feels a voyeur, watching the poetic utterances of a man expressing something no-one else understands. These scenes of crowded pubs, pints of stout, singing, talking and laughing cut against the depictions of home life. While Heaney’s early years in Connemara are portrayed as offering him a home life characterised by supportiveness, with no need for urgency or stress, this is sharply contrasted with the glimpse of domesticity Heaney is cocooned in in Glasgow. Married life, for Heaney, is fraught with a sense of being suffocated by the responsibilities it entails, and bristles with Heaney’s need for escape; leading to his betrayal, abandonment, and rejection of his family.
Threaded throughout Song of Granite too are contrasts concerning depictions of landscape. It is a half an hour into the film before any archival footage flashes on the screen, which shows men working in the mines, perhaps in Scotland in the 1950s. This serves to uproot the viewer from the calm and serene rocky landscape of Connemara, and the audience is transplanted into the “real-world” – both in the sense of it being archive footage and also that the dream-like sensibility of the first 30 minutes connotes childhood and innocence, as opposed to the grittiness of hard, physical work and family-life, marriage and children signifying adulthood; something reflected in the city setting of Glasgow. In this film, depictions of landscape on screen dominate. Film landscapes “come not only with cultural history but also with political intent and with wider context. They arrive with questions, and they arrive as the result of questioning … They explore the economies of human interaction with nature, with each other, with place and with time” (Harper and Rayner 4). Collins certainly employs representations of landscape to both ask questions and to posit some answers. Much of the focus of contemporary Irish cinema, as McLoone suggests, has been to “demythologise rural Ireland and to question the ascetic nationalism that underpinned it” (44). In contrast to, for example, Lenny Abrahamson, who’s use of a rural setting in Garage is crucial to the film but remains secondary to the narrative, Collins does not fit into this category of filmmaker. Instead, Collins very much foregrounds landscape in Song of Granite. However, whether Collins portrays the Irish landscape in ways that oscillate between what Luke Gibbons (as cited in Harper and Rayner) has referred to as “soft primitivism” – highlighting an unmarked-by-industrialisation, romanticised version of Ireland – and a “hard primitivism” – which evokes a landscape that is hostile and compels one to break away from it – is not quite clear. What is clear is that “landscape as place” (Lukinbeal 6) has resonance for the portrayals of various locations in Collins’ film. Lukinbeal’s suggestion that iconic and stereotypical images of place allow for audiences to immediately locate the film is something certainly present here both in the landscape of Connemara being instantly recognisable as the West of Ireland, and the cityscape of New York’s buildings and skyscrapers being likewise easily identifiable. Present too in Song of Granite is “landscape as metaphor” (Lukinbeal 13). This involves imbuing landscapes with anthropomorphic characteristics such as “nobility”, or “wildness” or “melancholy”; something in evidence in the contrasting “characteristics” of Connemara, Glasgow and New York; each with their own connotations. Connemara is perhaps a metaphor for solitude, peace, and simplicity; Glasgow represents community and family but also emotional turmoil and hardship; while New York offers an expanse and solitude of a different kind, a loneliness that echoes Connemara and Glasgow but differs in the fact of it being a place of intense excitement and vibrancy and international success for Heaney. If, as McLoone has suggested, the current generation of Irish filmmakers are reluctant to depict the Irish landscape on screen for fear of reproducing stereotypical tropes, Collins does not harbour such a fear. He stands as one of the exceptions that offers a complex, mature treatment of the Irish landscape.
The heart of this film is reflected in the features of young Joe; his freckled nose, threadbare jumper, a sense of place, his hunched and shivering figure is the embodiment of the physical and spiritual hardship of daily-life, kept at bay in the evenings by the warmth of the night-time fire, comforted by the love of his parents, and surrounded by poetry and neighbours. The soul of the film is embodied in young Joe’s father. Portrayed beautifully by sean nós singer Pól Ó Ceannabháin, he is gentle, warm and reassuring, and sings exquisitely with a palpable respect for the past as well as an immersion in the present. Collins’s restrained film resists the temptation to overuse expository commentary and dialogue. Though not identified, at different points in the film we hear two voices which we assume to be Heaney’s son and daughter but their contribution to shedding light on the temperament of their father is culled at one comment each. The film is all the better for the sparsity of “insight” into Heaney’s character. In the end, the film is less about Heaney and more about an Irish sensibility, particularly of a generation growing up in the 1930s through to the 1950s; we see these people as demonstrating tenacity and tenderness, vulnerability as well as a dignity embedded in silence, and a hardship borne of tough, physical work eased by living within a tight community. Ultimately, Collins wants us to feel something rather than simply know or learn something about Heaney; we leave Song of Granite feeling something about the importance of genealogy, about a lineage and tradition of Irish culture, song and music, about the nature and disposition of Irish peoples, which is reflected in the depictions of the land.
Harper, Graeme and Jonathan Rayner. “Introduction”. Film Landscapes: Cinema, Environment and Visual Culture. Ed. Graeme Harper and Jonathan Rayner. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013. 1-9.
Lukinbeal, Chris. “Cinematic Landscapes”. Journal of Cultural Geography 23.1 (2005): 3-22.
McLoone, Martin. Irish Film: The Emergence of a Contemporary Cinema. London: British Film Institute, 2000.